Nearly two years after Republicans took advantage of an insurgent mood that swept the nation and secured supermajority control of the Legislature, the GOP in Arizona can boast of enacting state budgets that eschewed accounting gimmicks, assumed cautious revenue estimates and earmarked money for anticipated rainy days ahead.
Indeed, many often point to the triumph of fiscal conservatism in the budget as the biggest accomplishment of the 50th — Arizona’s centennial Legislature.
“The budget itself was a victory by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and everything else is window-dressing,” said Stan Barnes, a political consultant and former legislator.
But lawmakers’ other work is arguably more profound, more sweeping and more lasting.
In addition to adopting conservative budgets, Republicans also approved an array of tax cuts, totaling at least $1.9 billion in eight years alone. These tax breaks will mostly benefit corporations.
As expected, lawmakers’ conservative leanings extended beyond fiscal policy.
With Gov. Jan Brewer at the helm, they enacted laws to limit abortion, give church-affiliated groups legal cover to deny contraception coverage to workers, advanced religious expression in the public arena and expanded school choice.
But the 50th Legislature was also notable for what it killed: “birther” legislation, strict enforcement type of anti-illegal immigration bills, proposals giving Arizona the power to “nullify” federal laws, and an array of anti-union measures, just to name a few.
Some of them failed because the GOP supermajority fractured as soon as the first opportunity arose. The split, at least, wasn’t unexpected.
Several prominent and controversial measures also suffered the governor’s veto pen, including proposals that would have expanded gun rights.
But the legislative triumphs and successes were almost overshadowed by the misdeeds that a breathtaking number of lawmakers were accused of: Sen. Scott Bundgaard and Rep. Daniel Patterson quit after facing separate ethics inquiries into domestic violence accusations. Rep. Richard Miranda abruptly resigned amid a federal indictment over allegations he defrauded a nonprofit he once ran. He later pleaded guilty in federal court to wire fraud and attempted tax evasion charges.
After the second regular session concluded, the feds dropped a bombshell — an indictment against Rep. Ben Arredondo, who is accused of bribery, fraud, attempted extortion and false statements for allegedly accepting thousands of dollars in game tickets and other perks in exchange for brokering property deals in Tempe.
That’s not all.
As often happens, the first regular session of the 50th Legislature began with new leaders. But so did the second session.
More stringent than what was proposed in Wisconsin, a conservative think tank in Arizona and its allies in the Legislature aggressively pushed for a slew of anti-union bills this year. The anti-union legislation in Wisconsin spawned massive demonstrations and recall efforts, which also targeted that state’s governor.
But while the Arizona measures created a media maelstrom, they ultimately went nowhere.
In a way, the bills tested the limits of what’s politically palatable at the Capitol.
One of the proposals, which constituted the biggest threat to public sector unions, would have eliminated employees’ ability to collectively bargain or have meet-and-confer negotiations with governments over salaries and benefits.
That bill never got out of the Senate.
Neither did a proposal to end the practice of compensating employees while they do union work, which is known as “release time.”
Meanwhile, a measure that would have banned automatically deducting union dues from public employees’ paychecks languished in the House.
One of the reasons they failed likely had to do with timing: The proposals inevitably targeted fire and police unions, whose endorsements are highly coveted, in an election year.
In short, Republican lawmakers faced the quandary of voting against the interests of groups whose political support they might seek later this year — or supporting the unions and risking the ire of the right wing of their party.
Another reason might be that the measures’ supporters miscalculated a few things.
They tried, for example, to cast public unions as selfish entities that have been siphoning off public resources at taxpayers’ expense, even though the unions in Arizona did not have — still don’t have — nearly the same clout as organized labor in other states, such as Wisconsin.
GOP vs IRC
Practically no other subject amassed such monolithic agreement among the Republican supermajority as the collective disdain for the decennial redistricting process. Many Republican lawmakers have said the new legislative maps practically ensure there will not be another Republican supermajority anytime during the next 10 years.
And by most accounts, the congressional map appears to strengthen the odds for Democrats looking to represent Arizona in Congress.
But while the disapproval was broad, GOP lawmakers’ attempts to smite the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission were marked mostly by their failures.
After months of controversy surrounding the hiring of a mapping firm with Democratic ties, allegations of open meeting law violations and omissions on the chairwoman’s application about the political work her husband did for a Democratic House candidate in 2010, Brewer and the Legislature took the boldest step afforded them by the Constitution — impeaching the commission’s chairwoman.
The action required support from two-thirds of the Senate and concurrence by the governor. The party-line vote came during a special session in early November 2011, and historic as the move was, it was topped only by the reversal of their decision by the Arizona Supreme Court a few weeks later.
With little other recourse available, Republicans mostly grumbled about the commission and the new maps, particularly during the debate over how much additional funding the commission should receive for the current fiscal year 2012.
Republican lawmakers did discuss possible reforms to the process. Some said the five-person commission should be expanded and require greater rural representation. Others supported completely abolishing the commission and letting the Legislature handle the job, as it did before the 2000 voter initiative that established an independent redistricting body. Tobin even drew his own alternative maps, and wanted to let voters choose between his and the commission’s.
Ultimately, none of those proposals gained traction and the most action the Legislature took was authorizing the legislative leadership to potentially sue over the legitimacy of an independent redistricting commission system.
Nowhere was the influence of fiscally conservative lawmakers more palpable than in crafting next year’s spending plan.
True, the state’s $8.6 billion budget for fiscal 2013 set aside money for new spending, such as for new patrol cars, reading preparedness and prison beds, which were among the governor’s priorities.
But lawmakers also succeeded in setting aside $450 million to plug anticipated budget holes in two years. That’s money that won’t be available for current needs.
They also persuaded the governor to assume more cautious revenue estimates — even when the state is actually collecting revenues that have so far exceeded expectations.
The governor and Republican lawmakers reached a budget deal late in April following months of negotiation.
The two sides kept the talks under wraps, but there were indications they might have been close to a breaking point.
At one point, Brewer threatened to veto all bills that reached her desk unless a budget deal was in place. The House and the Senate complied, imposing a moratorium on giving bills a final vote.
Another sign of frustration was the fact Republicans explored thae possibility of reaching a budget agreement with Democrats, which could have led to an override of a gubernatorial veto.
On April 27, Brewer, Tobin and Senate President Steve Pierce declared that their talks had finally produced a deal. The budget, they said, prudently prepares the state for economic uncertainties and any fallout from implementing the federal health care overhaul.
They also claimed that the “wisdom of conservative principles” helped to rescue Arizona from the brink of fiscal ruin.
The statement didn’t mention several things that helped — and are helping — to prop up the state’s budget during the fiscal malaise, including billions of dollars in borrowing, federal stimulus money, and a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase.
For many years, Arizona had plunged, head first, into the emotional, complex and always heated debate about how states and the nation should confront illegal immigration.
This year, however, was entirely different. The state decided to forego passing additional anti-illegal immigration measures.
Indeed, proposals that hewed to a strict-enforcement approach to solving illegal immigration went nowhere. Bills that would have required hospitals to report the undocumented and schools to count pupils that can’t prove legal status weren’t even heard in committee.
A proposal to create a state-run armed militia that would have been deployed to help intercept trans-border crimes didn’t get a vote in the House.
One measure that got through was largely benign: It would appropriate money raised through the Arizona’s border fence project to the Joint Border Security Advisory Committee, which would manage the construction and maintenance of the proposed fence. The project had raised about $300,000 — only enough for less than a mile of fencing.
But the Legislature’s non-action on the illegal immigration front wasn’t entirely unexpected.
The Senate had already rebuffed controversial anti-immigration bills last year, including the proposal to count pupils who are illegally here and to have hospitals report the undocumented.
More importantly, ex-Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of SB1070 who had championed anti-illegal immigration proposals, was missing from the state Capitol after he was ousted in a historic recall election last November.
And while immigration remains an important subject, people’s attention turned to something more pressing: How to spur economic growth in a state that lost more than 300,000 jobs to the recession.
Another history-making stat by the 50th Legislature was the number of lawmakers leaving their seats embroiled in scandal.
Bundgaard, a Peoria Republican, and Patterson, a Tucson Democrat, resigned from office after domestic violence scandals. Both fought the charges, denying guilt in attempt to keep their seats — even after being stripped of leadership in Bundgaard’s case and practically all legislative authority in Patterson’s.
Patterson resigned when it became clear he would be voted out of office by his peers, and Bundgaard quit just moments before he was scheduled to take the stand in his ethics trial.
Miranda, a Tolleson Democrat, abruptly resigned his seat in February, citing health and family issues, only to soon be charged with defrauding a charity for personal gain. Miranda pleaded guilty to wire fraud and attempted tax evasion and faces federal prison time.
Finally, Arredondo, a Tempe Democrat, was indicted in an FBI sting operation that ended in allegations of bribery, fraud, attempted extortion and lying to the police in connection with taking sporting tickets in exchange for helping to broker property deals.
All of the resignations came after roughly two dozen lawmakers were connected to the Fiesta Bowl scandal involving free tickets and junkets that came to light near the end of the 2011 session. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery ultimately found that lobbying and gift laws were too vague and contradictory to pursue any criminal charges stemming from the scandal, but he recommended the Legislature clarify the laws.
While a few legislators proposed changes to the laws governing gifts for lawmakers, the sentiment that carried the day was one of dismissal. No changes were ever made.
Social morality bills
Backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, bills imposing greater abortion restrictions and allowing employers to opt out of contraception coverage faced scrutiny from Democrats but were ultimately passed by the Republican-led Legislature.
Planned Parenthood suffered two blows: HB2036, which bans most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and imposes new disclosure guidelines for abortion clinics and the state health department; and HB2008, which prohibited Planned Parenthood from receiving any state funding.
Although the funding prohibition was supported unanimously by Republicans, the 20-week ban caused some to balk. An early version of the bill stalled at the beginning of the session after Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, held it in the House Health and Human Services Committee. Ash said he was concerned about the contradictory information being presented and wanted lawmakers to have time to mull it over.
But supporters dodged Ash’s roadblock, striking the language onto another bill and introducing it in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which included some of the Legislature’s staunchest anti-abortion lawmakers. The bill cleared committee and passed the Senate with the support of all but one Republican, Sen. Michele Reagan of Scottsdale. In the House, three Republicans voted against the bill: Ash, Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix, and Russ Jones of Yuma.
A ban on requiring employers to offer insurance coverage for birth control had to be watered down in order to gain support. In its original form, the legislation would have allowed any Arizona employer to deny contraception coverage for religious reasons; however, that version was defeated in the Senate.
It was resurrected later in the session with the promise of a more narrow scope: the amended bill allowed an employer whose incorporation papers “clearly state that it is a religiously motivated organization and whose religious beliefs are central to the organization’s operating principles” to opt out of providing contraceptives.
The revised bill received the support of all but one Republican in the Senate, Jerry Lewis of Mesa. In the House, Brophy McGee and Karen Fann, R-Prescott, joined Democrats in voting against the bill.
— Arizona Capitol Times writers Evan Wyloge and Caitlin Coakley Beckner contributed to this story.